Pain and suffering in this life really hurt, but God never leaves us to wallow in hardship on our own.
The racial world I grew up in, and the one we live in today, are amazingly different. Racism remains in many forms in America and around the world. In fact, the last two years have brought a disheartening setback, as advocates of white supremacy have been emboldened to be overt.
But in the days of my youth in South Carolina, it was worse. So much worse. The segregation was almost absolute, its manifestations utterly degrading, and the defense of it rang not only from street mobs, but also from the halls of political power — without shame.
- In 1954, seventeen states required segregated public schools (America in Black and White, 99);
- In 1956, 85% of all white southerners rejected the statement, “White students and Negro students should go to the same schools”;
- 73% said that there should be “separate sections for Negros on streetcars and buses”;
- 62% did not want a Negro “with the same income and education” as them to move into their neighborhood (144);
- In 1963, 82% of all white southerners opposed a federal law that would give “all persons, Negros as well as white, the right to be served in public places such as hotels, restaurants, and similar establishments” (139);
- And in 1952 (when I was six years old), only 20% of southern blacks of voting age were registered to vote.
The upshot of those statistics was an unjust, unsafe, condescending, unwelcoming, demeaning, and humiliating world for blacks. Have you ever paused to ask yourself what separate water fountains and separate restrooms could possibly mean except, You are unclean — like lepers? It was an appalling world.Enter MLK
Between that racially appalling world and this racially imperfect one strode Martin Luther King, Jr. We don’t know if the world would have changed without him, but we do know he was a rod in the hand of the all-ruling God. Leave aside his theology and his moral flaws. They do not nullify the massive good God wrought through this man. He was used in the mighty hand of Providence to change the world so that the most appalling, blatant, degrading, public (and usually legal) expressions of racism have gone away.
For that alone, the fiftieth anniversary of Martin Luther King’s tragic assassination, and loss to the cause of justice, is worthy of heartfelt focus.
Martin Luther King gave his life to change the world. And toward the end, he was increasingly aware that “the Movement” would cost him his life. The night before he was assassinated by James Earl Ray outside room 306 of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis on April 4, 1968, he preached at the Bishop Charles Mason Temple. He had come to Memphis to support the badly underpaid black sanitation workers.
His message came to be called “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop.” He began it by surveying world history in response to a question from God, “When would you have liked to be alive?” King answered, “If you allow me to live just a few years in the second half of the twentieth century, I will be happy.” Why? Because “I see God working in this period of the twentieth century in a way that men in some strange way are responding. Something is happening in our world.”
What was happening? “We are determined to be men. We are determined to be people.” We are standing up. “A man can’t ride your back unless it is bent.” For a brief window of time — just long enough — MLK was able to use his voice to restrain violence and overcome hate: “We are masters in our nonviolent movement in disarming police forces. They don’t know what to do.” He kindled a kind of fire that no firehoses could put out, and a kind of courage that no dogs could defeat.
Oh yes, there was violence in the sixties. But three years before his final message, when King was asked whether the riots occurred because the leadership of his people was no longer effective, surely King was right to say, “The riots we have had are minute compared to what would have happened without their effective and restraining leadership.”To the Promised Land
He continued on that last night: We have pursued “a dangerous kind of unselfishness.” Like the Good Samaritan. “The Levite asked, ‘If I stop to help this man, what will happen to me?’ But the Good Samaritan reversed the question: ‘If I do not stop to help this man, what will happen to him?’ That’s the question before you tonight.”
A dangerous unselfishness.
So dangerous it would cost MLK his life. And he saw it coming. That morning there had been a bomb threat on his plane from Atlanta to Memphis. He felt it coming. So he closed his sermon prophetically:
We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it really doesn’t matter with me now, because I’ve been to the mountaintop. And I don’t mind. Like anybody, I would like to live a long life — longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over, and I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land. And so I’m happy tonight; I’m not worried about anything; I’m not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.
Less than 24 hours later he was dead. My world was changed forever. And I am thankful.
How do we teach our children to respect our God-given authority, while also treating them with Christlike humility and servant leadership?
A strip of road unwound toward a nondescript town that neither of us had ever visited. He hailed from rural Kenya, where he taught neighbors about the Bible among plots of maize and rust-colored earth. I knew only the concrete and white clapboard of the northeastern US — its coffee mugs, felt coats, and snow-gray skies. An ocean separated the daily trappings of our lives.
For one hour on a highway, however, we conversed with the easy tenderness of a brother and sister, of two strangers made close through Christ. We talked about calling, about service, and about hearing God. As telephone poles slid past the windshield in a dark grid, I asked how his seminary studies in the US had influenced his life in Kenya.
“It’s hard,” he sighed. “Being here has changed me. I’ve never completely belonged here, but I don’t fit in there anymore either.”Tangled Memories
I recognized in his voice the same forlorn tone with which other friends had spoken of this straddling between worlds. Psychologists and sociologists give it a name — acculturation, the merging and modification of cultures. As is often true of theory and statistics, journal articles seldom capture the flesh-and-blood nuances of the struggle: the creases upon a brow, the eyes misting from the sting of tangled memories. The photographs that suddenly seem out of place. The drifting.
My friend drew a breath, and with it seemed to take hold of the New England tree line, to anchor himself in that cragged horizon. When he finally spoke, his words were taut, his voice barely holding together, the foundation cracking. “It’s like I don’t really have a home,” he said. “But then again, what home does any of us have, before heaven?”
The words hung in the air, their weight pulling upon my heart. I could not know the intricacies of his suspension between cultures, the raw wounds that struggle tore open. But everyone on this lush earth knows the yearning for home. I could palpate the longing, could feel the emptiness twisting my stomach as I reached into my own memory for places that seemed to flicker and vanish, fragile lights snuffed out.Wanderers on the Earth
Home is a word we brandish casually, its colors weathered, its edges frayed from careless use. It connotes stability, rest, belonging. Yet with all its familiarity, how often does the peace of home elude us?
How many of us return to a childhood home to find the enchanted gardens overgrown with weeds, and cracks and ivy climbing the walls? How often do we return to beloved spaces to find the people who shaped us gone, their voices and scent vanished from the empty, unswept rooms? How do we grasp home when families break and scatter? How do we cling to it, when its definition forever shifts, its location constantly changes? How do we admit that wherever we go, we don’t really belong? That when we stroll boulevards fringed with skyscrapers, and lose ourselves in a sea of people, we still feel so alone?
Places leave imprints upon us that persist for a lifetime. Our own marks upon our surroundings, however, are ephemeral. Homes in this life change us, then forget us. They mold our hearts, but eventually our fingerprints fade from their surfaces. With each cycle of the earth about the sun, cherished walls wither and crumble. This side of the fall, every soul stumbles about the planet in search of home. Wrenched from God, none of us entirely belongs. We yearn to be at rest with the Lord, but we all remain wanderers, lost in the desert.
Our heritage as nomads began when Adam and Eve, trembling, skulked away from the garden with their eyes averted from God (Genesis 3:21–24). Our displacement has continued since then, driving us into shackles (Deuteronomy 6:21), into the wilderness (Numbers 32:13), into a constant restlessness as we strive to become whole again. To be gathered and led, finally, completely, by the patient, loving arms of the good shepherd (Zechariah 10:2; John 10:11).
In the meantime, our souls stir in discontent. Restlessness grips our bones. “How lovely is your dwelling place, O Lord of hosts!” we inwardly cry. “My soul longs, yes, faints for the courts of the Lord; my heart and flesh sing for joy to the living God” (Psalm 84:1–2). While we seek, strive, and pine for belonging, we know the rust-colored roads and white clapboard are only shadows of the home for which we all yearn.Heaven’s Walls
Yet even in our most desperate longing, we have hope. As C.S. Lewis writes, “If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world” (Mere Christianity, 138). While photographs grow yellow and roots from trees push through the decaying sidewalk, we remain God’s beloved. We bear his image (Genesis 1:27). He knows every wind-torn hair upon our heads (Matthew 10:30).
Christ offers us, at long last, the promise of home, and peace, and belonging for which we all thirst (Psalm 42:1, Matthew 11:28). While we struggle through cultures and memory to discern our place, we cling to the hope that this sojourn on earth is transient. As Paul writes, “For we know that if the tent that is our earthly home is destroyed, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens. For in this tent we groan, longing to put on our heavenly dwelling” (2 Corinthians 5:1–2).
We serve a God who hears our cries, who knows the fracturing of our hearts as we wander the earth. Through Christ’s sacrifice, he welcomes us into respite (Psalm 107:4–7). As the father embraces his prodigal son, so God rushes to us with open arms, welcoming us to his table, inviting us to enjoy the communion possible only through the healing power of redemption (Luke 15:20) — through the forgiveness of our sins, which at long last restores us to God and makes all things new (Revelation 21:5).
In Christ, we find belonging. Through him we revel in a joy without boundaries, a joy that never fades, a joy whose walls will never crumble to dust. As the road unwinds, Christ’s resurrection draws us into the perfect communion for which our souls ache. He restores us. He renews us. He finally, gently pulls us weary and dust-covered from our wanderings, and at last calls us home.
Those who say they want to be happy while they still indulge in sin do not really want to be happy.
Those who say they want to be happy while they still indulge in sin do not really want to be happy.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church states, “The Roman Pontiff, by reason of his office as Vicar of Christ, and as pastor of the entire Church has full, supreme, and universal power over the whole Church, a power which he can always exercise unhindered” (882).
Further reinforcing his power and authority, the catechism claims, “The Pope enjoys, by divine institution, supreme, full, immediate, and universal power in the care of souls” (937). The catechism presents the papacy as a divinely appointed institution that presides over the life of the church and exercises its rule over God’s flock.
Where do these massive claims come from? Roman Catholics trace the pope’s origin to the apostle Peter. But history tells a different story.On What Rock?
Rome wasn’t built in a day, and neither was the Roman Catholic papacy. It was a long process that led to the setting up of this millennia-old office that combines spiritual and political claims.
The pope claims to hold an office originally bestowed by Jesus upon the apostle Peter, and which has been passed down through a direct and unbroken line of succeeding apostles. In other words, the pope claims to hold apostolic authority and continue the mission Jesus supposedly entrusted to Peter in Matthew 16:18: “You are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church.”
The Roman Catholic Church sees an embryonic stage of the papacy in this passage. It believes Jesus gave to Peter (and by implication, to all his formal successors) a foundational role in the building of his church. Subsequent traditions and practices continued to develop the bishop of Rome’s role to the point at which the papacy eventually emerged.
However, when we do a little digging, we soon enough find no organic connection between what Jesus says of Peter in Matthew 16:18 and the function of the papacy. The pope claims a succession to Peter’s ministry, but Jesus makes no reference to such a succession. Nor can we see in the text how this succession became attributed to the city of Rome, nor the imperial form that the papacy took.
A better interpretation of Matthew 16:18 is that the church, the community of Jesus’s disciples, will be built upon Peter’s confession that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the living God, not on Peter himself. Jesus underlines the fact that “my” church will be built in such a way. It is not Peter’s church; it is the church of Jesus, founded by Jesus as the Messiah. Jesus is the founder and the builder of the church, whereas Peter is a witness, a spokesperson of this divine truth that God was revealing to him and the other disciples.
Moreover, Jesus gives no indication that Peter will have successors that will take his place. This text can be seen as the biblical basis for the papacy only if the doctrine of the papacy has already been established apart from Scripture, and then subsequently and retrospectively squeezed into it.Child of the Empire
If the papacy isn’t the office of Peter’s apostolic successors, where did it come from? A look at history shows that it’s far more a product of the Roman Empire than of Peter’s ministry. The Roman imperial pattern was the influential blueprint that shaped the papal institution from the fourth century onward. The papacy is more a child of imperial categories than biblical ones. The papacy never would have emerged if there were no empire forming the political and cultural milieu of the life of the early church.
The slow process that led to the formation of the papacy depended on the importance of Rome as the capital city of the empire and the power it exercised in the ancient world. The ideology of the Roma aeterna (eternal Rome) crept into the church and influenced the way Christians perceived the role of the church of Rome in relation to the role of the city in the affairs of the empire.
As the Roman Empire gradually abandoned the West, what was left in Rome was the “imperial” structure of the church with the pope as its head. Then, between the fourth and fifth centuries, popes applied to themselves the title of pontifex, the name of the chief high priest in ancient Rome.
Several centuries later, confronted with the Protestant Reformation, which invited the church to turn from its self-absorption and rediscover the gospel of God’s grace, Rome strengthened a sacramental system that made the church the mediator of divine grace. Then, confronted with modernity, which pushed for a review of the prerogatives of the church over people’s consciences and society, Rome elevated the papacy to an even more accentuated role through the dogma of papal infallibility — a move without any biblical support whatsoever.Rome vs. the Reformers
The papacy is a child of the Roman institutional church, rather than a child of Scripture. This is why the Protestant Reformers took issue with it. In writing against the Catholic theologian Johannes Eck in 1519, Martin Luther developed his critical approach towards the papacy with a full set of arguments.
According to the German Reformer, the authority of popes and councils should be subordinate to that of the Bible. The papacy was not instituted by Christ, but was instead established by the church over the course of its history. So it does not come from “divine law,” but is instead a human institution.
Luther argued, further, that the “rock” of Matthew 16:18 is not a reference to Peter, but is either his confession of Jesus on behalf of the whole church or Christ himself. Christ alone is the solid foundation of the church (1 Corinthians 3:11). The Roman popes have nothing “Petrine” about them, nor is there anything “papal” in Peter. The papacy is not commanded nor foreseen in Scripture, and therefore obedience to the word of God must take precedence over obedience to any mere human. Luther stressed that if the pope disobeys Scripture, the faithful Christian should follow the latter without hesitation. Christians are not obligated to obey an unfaithful pope.
In 1544, writing on the unity of the church, John Calvin also refuted Catholic arguments for the papacy, stating that while Scripture often speaks of Christ as the head of the church, it never speaks of the pope this way. The unity of the church is based on one God, one faith, and one baptism (Ephesians 4:4–5), with no mention of the necessity of the pope in order for the church to be the church. Moreover, Calvin argued, in listing the ministries and offices of the church, Paul is silent about a present or future papacy. Peter was Paul’s co-worker, not his pope-like leader. The universal bishop of the church is Christ alone.
To this biblical argument for the headship of Christ, Calvin added a historical reference to some patristic writings that support the same New Testament view. Even Cyprian of Carthage, a church father considered by many to have favored an early form of the papacy, calls the bishop of Rome a “brother, fellow-Christian, and colleague in the episcopate,” thus showing that he did not have in view the kind of primacy that was later attributed to the pope.
To keep the unity of the church, Christ alone is the Lord we need. This was true in the sixteenth century, and it continues to be true today.What About the World?
In today’s world, this is only one side of the matter. In ecumenical circles, many are inclined to believe that, in the globalized world, a global Christian spokesperson would be practically useful for Christianity as a whole. In interfaith circles, some religious leaders (for example, from the Muslim world) go as far as to say that the pope represents the whole of humanity when he advocates for the poor of the world or when he makes appeals for peace.
The world, both religious and secular, seems to yearn for a global figure that no political institution and no international organization can provide at the moment. Therefore, Protestants are pressed with the question, Does the world need a leader in order to live in peace? It’s a question that continues to be posed to Bible-believing Christians, especially in times when the pope attracts much attention and is looked at as being one of the few, if not the only one, who can speak on behalf of all.
The troublesome reality, however, is that the pope continues to claim religious and political roles that are biblically unwarranted. As the church does not need a mere human pope to be united, so the world does not need a global religious leader, other than Christ himself, to live in peace. Jesus said, “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you” (John 14:27). The church and the world need Jesus Christ, and him alone.
Self-denial is not an end in itself, but a pathway to greater joy in Jesus.